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Shelter strategy lauded, but persecution remains

MP SPEAKS This is certainly a victory for the people who came together to demand their governments and countries in South-East Asia reach out to help the thousands of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants who were adrift at sea.

I welcome the decision by Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to offer temporary shelter to these seven thousand people.

The Malaysian government must work with the non-governmental organisations and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide humanitarian and medical assistance to the Rohingya.

It has also been heartwarming to see Turkey, the Philippines and an African nation, Gambia, offer assistance.

Asean, often nicknamed the toothless tiger, has finally responded albeit a bit late. Or the death of at least one hundred refugees may have been avoided.

Having said that, we cannot dismiss the fact that ultimately it’s Myanmar that has to own up and address the root cause of the problem.

Myanmar’s sectarian violence and state-sponsored killings targeting the Rohingya forces the minority Muslim community to flee their home country.

An escalation of violence in June 2012 left close to 120,000 Rohingya in squalid camps with no clean drinking water, bereft of food supply and a critical lack of basic sanitation.

Accounts by filmmakers who have traveled to Sittwe, tell stories of continuing persecution where military men forcefully take the Rohingya women from these camps for sex. According to them, young boys and men often disappear and most times end up dead.

Trying to flee to safety, the Rohingya make the perilous sea journey from Sittwe, putting their lives in the hands of traffickers.

Statistics compiled by the International Organisation for Migration say more the 88,000 people have made the dangerous voyage across the Bay of Bengal since 2014, including 25,000 who arrived during the first quarter of this year.

Out of this at least 1,000 are believed to have died at the hands of traffickers, aided by the Thai military, for failing to pay huge amounts of money.

Myanmar, in a downright ambiguous manner, has said it will deal with the humanitarian crisis.

For all intents and purposes this may just be lip service by the rogue state, which has refused to shoulder blame for the crisis, saying trafficking is the sole reason for the continuing exodus.

Furthermore, the quasi-civilian government has also said it will not attend the regional meeting organised by Thailand later this month aimed at finding a feasible solution to the crisis if the invitation uses the word ‘Rohingya’.

Keep pressuring Myanmar to be accountable

Therefore Asean must keep pressuring Myanmar to be accountable; to allow a safe right of return passage for the Rohingya and to recognise them as citizens.

All countries including Malaysia had issued stern warnings against future Rohingya boat people, saying none will be allowed in.

The Rohingya have been fleeing to Malaysia since the early 90s.

Malaysia’s non-ratification of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its subsequent harsh treatment of the Rohingya and other refugees have not deterred them from landing in Malaysia.

We are therefore not in a position to keep pretending that upping security and threatening the Rohingya with deportation will prevent them from fleeing here.

Asean, instead, has to lobby Myanmar to look at the systemic conditions that force the Rohingya to risk their lives at sea.

The regional bloc has to also iron out the thorny issue of human trafficking in the region.

Otherwise the exodus by the Rohingya will continue.

CHARLES SANTIAGO is Member of Parliament, Klang.